Glen Johnson

Children displaced in Turkey’s camps haunted by fear of beheading, abduction

October 13, 2014 New Zealand Herald

Little Haifa Sheikh peeks out from behind her hands, which cover her face. She is a dusty wee thing, grime and dirt dotted about her clothes, stuck in her hair. She says she is afraid.

“I am afraid that Daash [Isis] will cut my head (off),” she says. “I am always thinking about them.”

Nearby, a toddler crawls across the stony ground and into a puddle, his mother hastily picking him up. Another boy uses a piece of hose as a trumpet.

In a refugee for displaced Kurds in the southern Turkish town of Suruc, parents coo at babies while worrying about the well-being of their children, swept up in Syria’s bloody civil war.

“My children are terrified,” says 45-year-old Jamila Sheikh, who fled the farmlands outlying Kobane 20 days ago, as Isis (Islamic State) militants careened through the region. “There is medicine in this camp, but no one to help my children.”

Syria’s nearly four-year civil war has exacted a massive toll on children, who have been displaced en-masse, exposed to airstrikes and shelling as well as arbitrary arrest and torture, the United Nations says.

“I have heard fighting before,” says 10-year-old Yasmin Lutfi, her soiled pink T-shirt adorned with a picture of a sparkling butterfly, her hair cropped close.

“Sometimes I have dreams about them (Isis) taking me away,” she says.

For the past month, Kurdish fighters have battled Isis in the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobane, about 10km from the camp. The fighting is bitter, now morphing into a campaign of street fighting, perhaps approaching its final act.

An estimated 180,000 people have scattered in the face of the onslaught, seeking refuge in Turkey.

Jihadists launched a concerted assault on the city centre at the weekend, bolstered by tanks driven in from an Isis stronghold east of Kobane over the past few days. Kobane is a focal point of United States airstrikes targeting jihadist forces. Out-gunned Kurdish fighters reportedly repelled the assault, but the fighting was furious.

“It is not just Daash that has scared them,” says Bakr Ahmed, who fled Kobane’s environs with his children 15 days ago. “First we had problems with the Free Syrian Army, then with Jabhat al-Nusra. Now we have Daash.”

In this camp of dour grey tents, the latest developments in the bloody battle for Kobane quickly spread. The children here are growing up enveloped by all host of brutality.

“My children should not know these things,” says Sheikh, as a small child nearby beats a fluorescent yellow soft toy against the ground.

One photograph, viewed on a Kurdish militia member’s phone, depicted a man stripped naked and hand-cuffed. Dozens of knives were stuck – most embedded up to the handle – into the mutilated corpse.

“These children have been in a war, and there is only one psychologist here,” says Marih Sanli, a Turkish doctor providing medical treatment from a makeshift clinic in the camp. “There is no food for them, no books or schools. And they are living in a camp where you wouldn’t even keep animals.”

A small child wearing a Big Bird T-shirt licks melted chocolate off a wrapper while others kick around a soccer ball. A chill wind blows through the camp, the sun sinking.

Winter is approaching and most of the children say they do not know when they will return to their homes.

For 9-year-old Ahmed Bozan, his teeth chipped and his face freckled, the Isis fighters are frightening. He has heard about the decapitations.

“I want to kill them all,” he says.

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